The immense value of “slop time”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. We spend such a large portion of our days reacting to issues flying at us from all directions that we can easily lose sight of where we’re headed and why we’re going there. We’re so busy that we don’t have time to think, and failing to allot time to think is ultimately counterproductive. Taking time (and even scheduling time) to reflect on past actions and consider future courses of action is more important than we often realize.

Consider this quote from former Intel exec Dov Frohman in his book Leadership the Hard Way and also discussed on this Practice of Leadership blog posting:

“Every leader should routinely keep a substantial portion of his or her time—I would say as much as 50 percent—unscheduled. Until you do so, you will never be able to develop the detachment required to identify long-term threats to the organization or the flexibility to move quickly to take advantage of random opportunities as they emerge. Only when you
have substantial ’slop’ in your schedule—unscheduled time—will you have the space to reflect on what  you are doing, learn from experience, and recover from your inevitable mistakes. Leaders without such  free time end up tackling issues only when there is an immediate or visible problem.”

Frohman makes some excellent points about the need to learn from experience and pull the value from the mistakes we make. Truly understanding the pros and cons of past decisions, ideally with the benefit that hindsight and new learning gives us, helps us better prepare for future decisions.

But there’s so much going on every day, and with staff cuts we have more work than ever. How can we possibly afford to time to think?
Well, Frohman has a ready answer:

“Managers’ typical response to my argument about free time is, ‘That’s all well and good, but there are  things I have to do.’ Yet we waste so much time in unproductive activity—it takes an enormous effort on  the part of the leader to keep free time for the truly important things.”

Of course, that’s easy to say and considerably harder to do. But it’s so important. Without taking the time to focus on the most important issues, tactics and strategies, we end up constantly fighting fires and ultimately working our way into a death spiral.

I find that if I give my think time enough priority, I can find a way to get it in. For me, actually scheduling time on my calendar makes all the difference. It also forces me to put some of the daily issues into perspective and postpone or even cancel meetings that don’t rate highly enough on the prioritization scale.

So, what do we do with this newly scheduled time to think?

Reflect on past decisions
I’ve recently started spending some time actively thinking through the decisions I made during the previous week or so. It’s amazing how hard it was at first to think of many decisions I made, particularly the numerous small decisions that happen every day. They came and went so fast that I didn’t really immediately retain them and their effects. Where they good decisions or bad decisions? It made me wonder if I could make better decisions in the future just by doing a better job of examining past decisions.

Open up to new ideas and learn something new
I am constantly hungry for new ideas. I love to read interesting new books, and I try to read as many blogs as I can. Of course, all of that reading takes time, so I look for my opportunities wherever I can. I try to read for at least a half hour every night, and I’m always looking for books that will expand my thinking.

I’m currently reading a very interesting book called How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It’s essentially about behavioral economics (a fascinating field with all sorts of retail implications) but the twist is that he actually examines the inner mechanics of the brain to explain why we do what we do. He’s a good story teller and it doesn’t get to “scienc-y.” (Is that a word?)

Fooled by randomness Another book that has me thinking more than any book I’ve read in a very long time is Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. How much time have we mis-spent reacting to data that lacks statistical significance? Could some focused learning on the events that fool us time and again prevent us from making bad decisions in the future?

I use Google Reader to follow many thought provoking blogs, including those listed on the right column here. I also use the Newsstand application on my iPhone, which syncs with Google Reader and allows me to take in a blog or two at all sorts of random moments when I have a little bit of time on my hands. In fact, during my blog reading recently I even came upon a list of new an “out-of-the-box” ways to inject thinking in your business from Mitch Joel.

Anticipate the future
After analyzing past decisions and opening up my mind to new ideas, I try taking some time to start anticipating the future. Here, I think it’s definitely important to imagine large strategic shifts in the marketplace, but it’s also important to consider daily issues that come up with staff, marketing tactics, etc. as well. How are different types of decisions made in the organization, and who makes them? Is decision making authority matched with accountability? Are decision makers aware of their boundaries? Are the boundaries appropriate? Is the business strategy correct and clearly communicated? Are we working towards the right objectives? Should I consider a different approach when working with a particular person? Should I go with the ham or the turkey for lunch. 🙂

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You’re clearly reading at least one blog today, so it’s good that you’ve already made some time in your day. Good news! I hope you’ll be back, and I hope you’re also taking some time to read more of the really great content that’s available out there in both book and blog form. I hope you’ll come across something so mind-blowingly thought provoking that it changes the way you think about something. I hope you’ll be so open to new ideas that you won’t be afraid to change your mind about past decisions and direction. (Side note pet peeve of mine: Why do we criticize leaders and politicians who change their minds? Would you rather work with someone who can change his or her mind in the face of new information or someone who stubbornly sticks to convictions no matter what?)

And, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider adding some “slop time” to your schedule to allow you to reflect on past decisions, open up to new ideas and new learning, and anticipate the future.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear how you find time to think. What are your sources of expanded thinking? Will you share any great books or blogs that you’ve read? What’s changed your thinking recently?



15 Comments

  • By Welington Fonseca, September 1, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    This is a fascinating reading, one I agree 100%.
    I currently manage a loyalty program that was not well architected. Among the many reasons, it is clear that the team did not have much time to think (or to pilot the program). I am in the process of redesigning the program, and despite my criticism to the team in charge of developing the current program, I find myself in the same situation: extremely busy, and actually double –sometimes triple- booked in many time slots during the week.
    Most lately I have been scheduling “time for self” on my schedule, so I can pause and think about the direction we are taking and whether we are not missing anything this time around. So far this simple action has helped tremendously, thus leading me to believe that our new program will create more value to our customers and our organization.

  • By Sarah, September 1, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    It’s also important to understand HOW you do your best thinking and ensure you’re getting the right opportunities for productive thinking. I process externally, both in my private life and my job, meaning before I make a decision on a new house, a new car, a new employee, or a new business iniative, I need to talk it over and think out loud a bit. Feedback and collaboration is great, but sometimes all I need is for someone to listen to me: saying my thoughts out loud helps me organize them, test them, and develop them better than writing does. So for me, especially since I work from a home office, it’s very important for me to have “think time” with other people built into my work schedule.
    In terms of following news and blogs to stimulate new ideas, I still struggle with the “down the rabbit hole” phenomenon–getting sucked into reading things or following links that aren’t relevant. Again, I do this in both my personal life and my work life.
    Also, I like to ramble in blog comments. It helps me think. 🙂

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 1, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Welington. It’s amazing how easy it is to get double and triple booked, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing your story about how scheduling some “time for self” is paying off for you. I have no doubt you are going to use that time to great success.

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 1, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    Excellent point, Sarah. Understanding what methods bring out your best thinking is absolutely important. I personally find that writing my thoughts down forces me to be more thorough and coherent in my thoughts. Others have methods that work better for them. I really appreciate you bringing that point to the discussion.

  • By Matt Cushing, September 1, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    I’ve been a proponent of booking “office time” into my schedule for a while, and it’s had the added benefit of keeping all the morning people from scheduling the dreaded 8am meeting.
    But the trap with scheduling this time is actually using it to think. It is easy to use the time to catch up on all the things to do from the previous meeting or to prepare for the next meeting without thinking and deciding if that upcoming meeting really needs me there.
    Prioritizing projects and tasks and committing to pushing lower priority items off has helped tremendously in allowing ample time to think about strategy and do the higher priority items right instead of in a rush.

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 1, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Matt, and great point about not only scheduling the time but using it to focus on the most important things. It certainly very easy to get distracted by meeting prep, email, etc.

  • By Eric Feinberg, September 1, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Kevin, I too think about thinking. You do an excellent job here of making the case for setting aside worktime for thinktime. This is a great post and I’ve enjoyed your other posts as well.
    I often think about those amazing corporate moments – where fresh ideas meet with enthusiasm to institute passion and direction in a group of individuals. That energy transmits to their team members and there’s a real Red Bull-and-vodka-shot-in-the-arm to their productivity and joy in their work (shaken not stirred, right?). Slop time leads to creative time leads to fresh ideas leads to those amazing moments.
    While we’re on the subject of slop time and great blogs, consider Ferris Bueller’s generous use of slop time and ESPN Page 2’s Bill Simmons’ partial blog about it (CTRL + F, then “Ferris” to get to that part quickly): http://tinyurl.com/nxhhjv

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 3, 2009 @ 9:38 am

    Thanks for your comment, Eric. I really like the Red Bull-and-vodka-shot-in-the-arm reference. How can you not want that type of productivity?!?
    Thanks also for the Bill Simmons Ferris Bueller commentary. Good stuff.

  • By Jason, September 3, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    Kevin, great post; like the other commenters here I’m 100% on board with this concept. It ties in very nicely to your “Maintaining the Status Quo” commentary: no time to think = no time break out.
    In my short time as a professional, I’ve seen quite a few instances in which “think time” has been restricted by policy and has driven management to think in terms of “hacks” or quick fixes to address larger organizational issues, ultimately leading to an operational disaster. Whereas in other cases, think time is part of the gig: Google engineers allocte 20% of their week to essentially think and address some problem. Needless to say, I think Google is doing fine and the rest of us have definitely benefitted from this 20% policy (GMail came from someone’s 20% time!). Then at the far end of the spectrum are “think tanks”… not quite sure what to make of those, but I guess we don’t hear much about the success of think tanks.
    As you point out in your post, I think it really comes down to how you manage your productive vs “unproductive” think time. Tangable deliverables are what, in many cases, bring in the bacon so of course we feel more pressure to devote more time to those activities. However, having the foresight to think ahead and realize that churning out cogs day in and day out won’t sustain your business forever is what will ultimately be the major contributing factor to a business’s longevity.

  • By Megan Burns, September 4, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    This is a great post. As someone who’s job is to spot trends and new ideas, “slop” time is critical. I also find it helps me maintain sanity in this go-go-go world we now live in. Thanks for sharing!

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 4, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Jason. We certainly all still need to devote time to “getting things done.” But, using our think-time wisely can help ensure we’re getting the RIGHT things done, and that can make all the difference in the world.

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 4, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Megan. As someone who has benefited from the great insight that has come out of your slop time, I am very happy you’re ensuring you have that time. 🙂

  • By Jay Konigsberg, September 8, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    My question is: who do you want thinking?
    As a tech, we get saddled with task tracking systems (like Remedy) that measure how well you’re doing your job based on the number of tasks completed and if found chatting away from ones desk (especially when there is some problem), being told to “get to work” is a common occurrence. It doesn’t seem to occur to many managers that techs benefit from think time as well.
    You are 100% correct that think time is very important, but when done by team members that are not high enough on the food chain, it is altogether too often viewed as screwing off and discouraged.

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 8, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Jay. I appreciate you making the point about who should be thinking. My answer is that everyone should plan for think time to help them be more efficient and effective with their time and efforts. I believe any employee should be accountable for his or her results and should have the authority necessary to accomplish those results.

  • By Jessica Owens, December 3, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    Great point, Kevin! I’ve always been pretty good at time management but lately I’ve begun to understand that there are only 24 hours in a day and I know just what it takes to max out a day. But you’re right, when I put in some slop time, it’s almost a recharge time and the rest of my work flows much more effortlessly!
    Also, thank you for the great book suggestions. I’ve read How We Decide and found it very fascinating! I’m going to check out the rest of the suggestions.

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